LONDON – Four years after China put an over-time scare into Spain’s NBA-laden silver medal Olympic squad, Los Angeles Lakers star Pau Gasol and his Spanish teammates made certain it would not happen again.
Gasol scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to spark the Spaniards over China 97-81 on Sunday in their Group B round-robin men’s basketball opener, even though NBA standout Yi Jianlian pushed the European champions to the end.
“We were missing a little bit of rhythm, but we will fix it and get better as the days go by,” Gasol said.
Serge Ibaka, another NBA standout on a team filled with such talent, added 17 points as the Spaniards ripped a Chinese team that had pushed them to over-time in 2008 group play before losing 85-75.
Yi of the Dallas Mavericks led China with game highs of 30 points and 12 rebounds while Wang Zhizhi, the first Chinese player in the NBA who now plays in China, contributed 15 points.
Spain’s Jose Calderon, who added 12 points, said that even without retired 2.29m centre Yao Ming, the Chinese side was as stubborn as in 2008 at Beijing.
“They were not that different,” Calderon said. “Yao is not there but everything revolves around Yi.”
China jumped ahead 7-3 in the first five minutes as Spain struggled early.
“First games are always tough,” Spain’s Juan-Carlos Navarro said. “We saw that in the first quarter, when we couldn’t make a big difference. We still have things to improve.”
Spain took a 53-41 half-time lead but China stayed within 69-60 entering the fourth quarter. That’s when Spain opened the final period with a 14-7 run and China could not recover.
“Spain is one of the best teams in the Olympics. They played very well,” Yi said. “We lost focus in the fourth quarter.”
Without man-mountain Yao, China has had to adapt as well.
“Our team has a new style,” Yi said. “We found a way to play together. We are improving and moving forward. We have to be faster and better defensively.”
Fitness and conditioning might be an issue for China, with Wang Shipeng noting he struggled at the finish when Spain sealed its victory.
“It was quite a good performance but we need to get better for the final games,” Wang Shipeng said. “I felt quite tired in the final quarter.”
NBA big man Marc Gasol, Pau’s brother who is recovering from a shoulder inujury, had five points and five assists in 21 minutes on the court.
“My shoulder is getting better,” Marc Gasol said. “I played my first game in about 20 days and I’m just getting the feeling back. Working out is a whole different feeling than playing in a real game.
“I’m cleared to play. I’m pain free. I’m just glad to be here.”
Check out the broadcast schedule of the Olympic men’s basketball tournament on AKTV and TV5.